By Supreme Court Justice Will Sellers
May is an interesting month for our neighbors to the South. This year, Mexico commemorates the 200th anniversary of the coronation of Emperor Agustín I, and the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla.
These seemingly obscure events are vital to a complete understanding of the Mexican experience.
As a colony of Spain, the internal government of Colonial Mexico was dependent upon the competency of Spanish officials sent to govern in the name of the King. The absolute power of the King was never debated, and his representative reflected a dictatorial bent in governing the country.
But, as Spain liberalized under the limited influence of the Enlightenment, Mexico moved away from a central autocrat and, in a practical attempt at local government, divided the country into geographical territories resembling our states.
The revolutions in both America and France had an impact on Mexico in two ways. First, given the close proximity to the American Colonies, Mexico was well aware of independence gained from England and shared a similar mother country/colonist relationship with Spain that was neither warm nor appreciated. Second, with close ties to Spain and the various 19th century wars and dislocations in Europe, Spain was so completely distracted by continental concerns that governing Mexico became an afterthought.
Mexicans saw the possibilities of independence and the idea of freedom.
But, in as much as Spain might have been influenced by Enlightenment liberalization, Mexico as a culture and society had no basis to receive the fruits of these new liberties. So, when Mexico declared independence from Spain and actually became a sovereign country, that was a far as things went. It was a one-night stand with no long-term commitment.
Mexico had no historical memory of self-government and no real system to replace the representative of the King with an alternative. The rule of law was arbitrary and the structure for government as initially attempted never truly became anything close to a democracy, much less a republic.
So, in freeing Mexico from Spain, there was no model of past experience to guide the new nation. And while there were military men who lead by force, they were incapable of converting their military leadership to govern and build institutions for sustained self-government. In short, there was no George Washington.
There were only strong men who gained power by force while attempting to unify the country, but they ultimately found despotism easier than the niceties of collaboration. Thus, in the preliminary stages of Mexican independence, government emerged from a survival of the fittest contest, and the execution of political rivals was often considered to be much easier than campaigning or submitting to a vote.
Achieving independence was easy as Spain was distracted with its own internal issues. But, when the new government attempted to draft a constitution and establish a working government, discussions broke down, and factions buoyed with rational and enlightened ideas were unable to reach any consensus for a sustained period of time.
With only ideas and no experience in self-government, the initial government disintegrated. Two hundred years ago, into this void stepped Agustín de Iturbide. He had been a successful general and had the presence of mind to unify his command with opposition forces to form a governing coalition. With the frustration that any new country would face and without the experience of history to provide any guidance for independence, the coalition failed.
But there was one history lesson observed and that from Napoleon who crowned himself Emperor. Agustín de Iturbide followed suit and simply proclaimed himself Emperor Agustín I without any consent, approval, or other ratification. Truly an amazing feat and in reality, a turn away from any enlightenment reason to dictatorial hubris.
The Emperor’s reign was short-lived. He abdicated and left the country for the safety of Europe. General Antonio López de Santa Anna, known by all Texas schoolchildren as the enemy of the Alamo, now started his rise to power.
While intending to unite the country under his leadership, Santa Anna was never able to fully control the country or provide a basis for continuity of government. He, too, would be forced into exile, and Mexico would again start the cycle of near anarchy resulting in military rule, quelling freedoms so anticipated by independence from Spain.
With significant natural resources even then, rampant corruption prevented any stable funding of a cohesive national government. Had a strong leader emerged with skills to create an effective government and pursue a viable constitution, outcomes might have been different.
But given the abundant natural resources, dictators were able to obtain easy credit allowing a posh lifestyle for themselves and their supporters. Each extension of credit lead to further debt renegotiations, until the government was unable to pay.
Collecting debts in our modern world is easy. There is a simple reliable system that deals with debtors and creditors in an equitable manner to sort out disputes and allow repayment. The rule of law acknowledges the importance of debt and its repayment, so we have courts to manage disagreements and even an entire system of bankruptcy laws to effectively compromise legal obligations.
Nations in the 19th century had no such system, so when Mexico’s debts were so large and could not be repaid, the country simply stopped paying. While this gave initial relief, the long-term consequences were not good; in Mexico’s case, the creditor nations, opting to collect by force, sent their armies across the Atlantic and invaded.
At first, the major European creditor countries united and were able to achieve some level of credit satisfaction, but the French remained chagrined, so they embarked on a crusade to not only collect debts owed to them, but also to conquer.
While marching on Mexico City, a far superior French Army was checked and defeated at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
Victory over a major European power was a significant and emotional victory for the Mexicans, and it offered ample cause and opportunity for celebration.
The anniversary of this battle is recognized as Cinco de Mayo; an important consequence of the Mexican experience now embraced internationally. With a history of more lows than highs, May 5th serves as a great excuse to reflect upon Mexican independence.
Will Sellers was appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey to the Supreme Court of Alabama in 2017. He is best reached at [email protected]